Of the ruddy wine, Planted on sunny days,
In truth, the journey from Saint-Malo had not been so terrible. There had, for one thing, been no sign of the feared Danish invaders as the little barque made its slow but steady way east, hugging the shore. True, for the first three days there had been sickness worse than ever before. True, the ship stank, of vomit of course, but also other unpleasantnesses preferably un-guessed at. True also, now that sickness was replaced by a ravenous hunger, the meat was rotten, the bread mouldy and the wine thin and acid by accustomed standards.
But this last stretch, long dreaded, across open sea, was instead wonderful. Sitting on the stern, the privations of the past days fell away, replaced by a tremendous sense of peace. The luminous causeway of the wake behind the boat faded into the far distance. Moonlight, peace and beauty: three good omens. Manicured hands reached automatically beneath the richly embroidered cloak, feeling for the satchel hanging against tightly bandaged chest. Of course the precious contents were still there. Time for their consideration in the morning: tonight was for a prayer of thanks to the Lady of All Names.
In a little cell at the hermitage of St Catherine at Queen's Camel, young Osric was not having so pleasant a time. He had very little idea of why he was there, simply that he had been chosen by lot to translate a small manuscript that had been sent to the nearby abbey church. Food was brought every day and there was good wine, clean bedding when he needed it, candles, parchment and all the necessaries. He would apparently be here for at least another two weeks - but that wasn't going to make much difference.
He wondered if this was all some kind of joke at his expense by another of the queen's courtiers. His Latin draft, checked and re-checked, made no more sense than the weird Breton copy. He suspected that the Breton was itself a translation, possibly from Flemming tongue. Maybe something had been lost. Maybe he just wasn't seeing it - it had taken long enough to work out that "ghostly" meant "spiritual".
Then there was the odd entreaty to read it in "the right manner, but cunningly and with mystery". This was apparently some readers had "mistaken the meaning", but Osric failed to see how a description of a water-butt spilling could be highly spiritual, as the manuscript insisted, or indeed be read wrongly. It was a water-butt. Full butts spilled sometimes. Grumpily and feeling very sorry for himself, he decided to take a bowl of wine and sit and watch the full moon's reflection in the bathing pool.
The following day dawned with a warm sun in an impossibly blue sky. At St Bride's Port, the small barque made an almost un-noticed landfall. Her one passenger thanked the crew, walked confidently down the gang-plank and headed in the direction of the church. Clearly, thought the sailing-master, the lad needed no further help so the man shrugged and went to help his crew unload. In truth, the retreating figure had never set foot in England before, but had instead memorised the directions for the next mile of her journey, and could visualise the whole route with confidence. It was a learned skill that went with the calling.
Down an alley-way next to the market hall, the path passed little wattle church and turned left to an adjacent small cottage at the edge of the tiny river. No-one was around and the figure confidently opened the door and slipped inside. The windows were papered but with the light of the small fire it was possible to make out two benches, a table and a large clothes-chest. Gradually adjusting eyes then noticed the brightly painted walls, the separate bed on a platform at the end of the room that marked the household as well-to-do, and a blue robe placed neatly on the lid of the chest. Shucking the cloak and cape, the satchel was pulled over a head topped with dark curls and placed reverently on the blue cloth.
Osric woke to find that his dark mood had abated. The morning held a curious sense of stillness, broken only by birdsong. He laid out an embroidered prayer-cushion in front of his prie-dieu and sought the reassuring and familiar inner calm of meditation. Much later, the bell for Matins roused him from sleep. Silently he mouthed the office to himself, missing the familiar sounds of the little chapel. When the bell sounded again, he walked down to bathe. Since the day was not yet hot it took great discipline to enter the pool, but he stood neck deep until he could stand it no longer. Emerging, Osric relished feel of the rough cloth as he dried himself, warming slowly in the sun. The bird-song seemed somehow more acute now. Donning his cloak, he resolved to re-copy his draft and see whether ordered thought would reveal something more.
The end of Matins sounded, too, in the little cottage. After a final prayer, the figure now started to unroll the bandage. It was a slow, methodical business, but finally she could breathe deeply as her breasts gradually regained their proper shape. Wrinkling her nose, she undid the tapes of her long shift, held it up and inspected it. Resignedly, she dropped it onto the fire, watching the flames take it. Taking the embroidered cloak in one hand, she left the cottage by the back door and walked to the river. She laid the cloak on the bank, walked briskly to a convenient tree to relieve herself, and then slid gratefully into the cool water.
Finally convincing herself that any lingering smell was a trick of her imagination, the woman climbed from the water. She dried herself on the cloak, moved back into the still empty cottage and hung the wet cloth over a bench by the fire. Considering the blue robe briefly, she elected instead to spread the cape on the floor by the fire. Sitting with ease she stared into the embers and reached within herself for another skill of her calling. She waited.
Osric was making progress. Copying the draft as a complete document, he could finally detect breaks in the flow. Checking the Breton original, he confirmed to his own satisfaction that there were seven missing sections. Confident of his solution, he sanded more fresh parchment, re-copied the separate sections and stacked them neatly with a blank sheet at each break. There was an air of satisfaction in a job well done, but nobody had told him what to do now, simply that he was to stay. He swept out his cell and then decided to take a bowl of wine and sit by the pool. He would watch the fish.
As Jeris opened the door a shaft of sunlight caught the woman's naked body. She was indeed, he thought, as beautiful as an angel. He turned to his wife and raised his brows: Alys shook her head, but the smell of fresh bread had already reached the woman's nose and she rose elegantly. Making no attempt to cover herself, she walked forward, smiling. Hastily ushering his wife into the cottage and shutting the door behind him, Jeris took the proffered hand, trying hard not to look flustered. The handshake was firm. The woman caught the direction of his glance and her smile broadened, gentle wrinkles softening the corners of her eyes.
"You will be Jeris:" she said "I am Blanche, and I greet you in the names of the Lady." She turned to the other woman, and moved to embrace her. "...and you are Alys" Hastily the basket of bread was placed on the bench and the two women embraced like old friends, firm breasts pressed together through a single thin robe.
"I am honoured." said Alys "We saw the boat arrive but were only now able to get back." She kissed Blanche without restraint, but then caught Jeris' somewhat distracted glance.
"Go on then," she told him good-naturedly "take the pony, ride to Queen's Camel as we discussed, and tell Ela that the angel with three keys is arrived. Blanche and I have much to do." Jeris feigned sadness and made to leave, but Blanche interrupted:
"...and be sure of a welcome as you return." Jeris seemed quite taken aback by the old greeting, and walked thoughtfully from the cottage. Alys moved the satchel aside and picked up the blue robe almost wistfully. She held it up and dropped it over Blanche's head with a sigh as it fitted perfectly. Blanche caught the look in her eye.
"Don't fret, Alys. We have indeed much to do, but it is not housework. We would not simply take from you. You are, and will be, a part of this. Jeris will be away until well after dark, will he not?"
""Indeed so" replied Alys, somewhat in puzzlement, but also with a faint hope stirring "but...""
""Indeed, the moon is full. But you are already oathbound, and this is not a passing, so we shall have wine. And later, when Jeris returns, we shall have the outer office with him, since we would not simply take from him, either.""
"It has been so long"
"Then" said Blanche, kissing her fingers and placing them across the other's lips to silence her "it shall be no longer. Now, let us prepare."
Osric's ordered world had been disturbed. This morning, as he sat with his wine watching the fish in the bathing pool, the lay sister had arrived accompanied by a carter, with fresh bedding and cloths. Apparently, he had completed the translation just in time: an "angel" would be arriving with three keys to the document. This puzzled him, because he had seven missing sections. Perhaps he was mistaken after all.
The thought had been with him as he swept his own cell and the empty one adjacent to it until they were spotless. He busied himself arranging the bedding, cloths and blankets. He paused for Matins, seeking the solace of meditation, but the silence and stillness would not come. He rearranged the bedding again, and swept his own cell again. Seven missing sections, but only three keys. He fretted, poured a bowl of wine, and went again to watch the fish.
A long time later it became dark. The rising moon was once again reflected in the pool, Osric went into his cell, thinking still of the keys and the missing sections. He was pondering his mistake when sleep finally took him.
In the cottage at Bride's Port, the oiled paper had been removed from the end window, so that the rising moon was visible. In its steely light, Blanche removed a silver cup from the satchel and filled it with dark wine from a pitcher. Alys' mouth formed a small 'o' of surprise, but Blanche quickly forestalled her:
"The journey has been a perilous one, and at the hands of the Danes, a glass cup would by now be no cup at all. But a cup is still a symbol for a cup, even in silver. It is a cup, and the figuring is much more". Now Alys could make out the familiar filigree of lines and holes circling the cup's rim - they just weren't as obvious as in the glass cup seen all those years ago.
Four hands intertwined for a moment before Blanche unclasped the blue robe and let it fall. Alys followed her lead, reverently folding the cloths, and then the two stood, watching the moon in the wine. Each held the cup for the other to drink; then together in Breton they began the ancient words, and gave themselves up bliss, and the Lady, and to union.
Later, Jeris, sore from the journey, was not particularly surprised to find two naked women sitting contemplating the fire. Alys rose and kissed him: The power in the room was palpable. Blanche held his hands in hers.
"Best that you bathe," she said "we will eat later." Alys brought him a bowl of wine, watched as he drank gratefully, then gently pushed him out of the back door.
The river was bitterly cold by now and Jeris washed quickly. As he dried himself, he was taken by surprise. It was probably the fatigue of the journey, he told himself, and the wine on an empty stomach, but the cottage seemed to be surrounded by a faint aura. He donned his jerkin and kilt and walked slowly back, shaking his head.
Returning to the darkness of the cottage, he was taken completely by surprise as four confident hands removed his clothing again. An unfamiliar mouth met his in a firm kiss and he was whirled into the centre of the room. Holding hands in a ring, they danced round, perfectly balanced. Jeris needed no-one to explain things now...
It was a beautiful sunset. So beautiful that Osric was for the first time thinking of something other than the parchments.
Leaving at dawn, Blanche and Alys had shared the pony as far as the first ford of the Camel River, then Blanche had walked along the river to the hermitage. She had not dared embrace Alys as they parted, nor look back, for fear that tears would betray her. Now she was here, alone and un-announced. Time enough to present herself to Ela tomorrow - there were more important things to do now.
"Hail and well-met, Osric." The man would have jumped, she thought, had he not been seated. Instead, he scrambled to his feet. For a moment, Blanche considered teasing him, then thought better of it "I am the angel with the keys. My name is Blanche and I greet you in the names of the Lady." Embarrassingly, he now knelt in front of her.
"My Lady..." he trailed off. She reached for his hand and he mutely allowed himself to be drawn to his feet.
"I have failed. There are but three keys and..." all his disjointed confusion flowed unchecked. She let him talk, accepting his frustration, channelling it from him into her own body and grounding it. Finally, he stopped, uncertainly. Wordlessly, once again smiling, she reached into the satchel and withdrew a roll of parchment. Untying the ribbon, she counted them for him. Seven.
"You have done better than I could have hoped." she said "These are bridges: the seven together form but the first key." He reached for them and for a second she was reminded of a small eager puppy. Once more, she shook her head. Once more, she was smiling. The sun had set now and the first stars were appearing in the darkening sky. "Time enough tomorrow. For now, is there wine to toast the beautiful night?"
Osric winced inwardly, and turned towards his cell to cover his embarrassment. He returned with a jug of wine and two earthenware bowls. Blanche poured wine into one, and held it for him to drink from. Clumsily, he finally managed, but not before his jerkin was stained as red as his face. Blanche now allowed herself a calculated giggle, and cocked her head to one side. The tension finally lifted and Osric refilled the bowl and held it for her. She drank elegantly, then deliberately tipped the bowl so that the last dregs spilled to the ground. Not wanting to break the moment, she pointed wordlessly at each cell in turn, eyebrows raised.
Osric joined in the game, and pointed to the one next to his own. Blanche disappeared for a few moments, returning in a brown woollen cloak that, like the blue one, fitted perfectly. She took him by the hand and walked to the edge of the pool. Still holding his hand, she sat. The reflected moon was completely calm. She closed her eyes.
"Come with me." she said. And this time, the Stillness was there when he reached for it.
Blanche woke him early and they meditated together once more, then broke their fast with bread and smoked fish. Soon after, in his cell, Osric showed her his translation, pointing out the blank sheets. She checked it methodically, silently mouthing the Latin, then finally sat back.
"I read well enough to know that I couldn't have produced this. It's truly powerful, as beautiful as the version in my own tongue." She took the new parchments and interleaved them in their correct places. "There is time enough for you to produce something beautiful. When you finish these you will know how much time. I have several things to do, but I will return before sunset and we will drink and talk together."
She walked from the hut. Washing the blue cloak was a moving meditation used silently to give thanks before spreading it on a thorn bush to dry in the gradually warming sun. Then she walked to the chapter-house adjacent to the little abbey church, to formally present herself to Ela.
"I expected you yesterday." Ela said testily, after formal pleasantries and credentials had been exchanged. Blanche was not intimidated.
"I arrived at sunset, but needed to see that all was well. Fortunate that I did so, for he has been hurting these past few days. Would you have formalities cause hurt to a wonderful candidate?"
"No..." Ela agreed, somewhat reluctantly "...so, he will do, then?"
"He may be the finest I have met. He has a flair for expression that marks him down as a natural, although he doesn't know it yet. He may realise his own worth by this evening, though." Blanche chuckled. And that was that. Ela desperately wanted to know more, but knew she could not now, perhaps ever. She was resigned, but it was only human to be a little regretful.
Osric worked with renewed vigour. After days of self-doubt, he was buoyed up by the confirmation of his work on the manuscript. He also felt elated for another reason. He knew full well that he had been skilfully played last night, but that didn't matter: she had put him back in touch with something he had thought lost forever.
First, he translated the seven new sections individually. He tried to put out of his mind their connections with his existing text. "Something beautiful", she had said, and he was determined that it would be so. The wonder grew as he worked. Despite his determination, thoughts began to seep into his consciousness, doubts and hopes at the same time. Finishing the draft of the seventh section, he decided to take a break. As had become almost habitual, he poured a bowl of wine and went to look at the pool and let his mind wander where it would.
Finally, he was sure. The new sections changed the meaning of a few key phrases here and there in the main text. "Come to me fully as a man" was outwardly a symbol for the enactment of the Last Supper. With the new material added in, it was ... other. His stomach gave a lurch at the implications. Thinking more carefully, he realised that the translation was not a test, more some sort of initiation. As well as guarding the secret, the missing sections guided one's thoughts. It was necessary to understand the material in order to see the breaks. Only if you saw the breaks did the extra material provide the key.
He drained the wine to the last few drops, allowing them to fall to the ground as Blanche had done. Now he knew that he could hide the gaps in the Latin as carefully as had the Breton translator before him. Now he felt a strange kinship with the unknown scribe, who had also presumably at this stage begun to guess at the second key.
Blanche had shared a small tray of sweet saffron cakes with Maxen, wife of King Edwold. As sometimes happens between such women, their discussion of the lad had become slightly ribald, and moreso when Blanche had explained her new plan, needing a silversmith and a Latin speaking blonde.
"I wish..." Maxen had sighed, pointing to her own short ashen hair and then to the other's dark ringlets "...but I fail to qualify on the third count."
"Besides which, you love Edwold too much to give him up"
"True enough, although I can allow myself to dream. Still, it shall be done. The next full moon, then. But you must travel to the smith." And so it had been agreed. Blanche had set off back to the hermitage, mentally piecing together Osric's Latin, so that by the time she arrived, the basis of his beautiful cadences were fixed in her memory.
Night fell. Blanche checked the re-worked translation, with each of the new sections carefully inscribed on a separate parchment so that they could be inserted or removed at will. She read the document without the keys, and with. The result was truly magical, better than the original Breton. It was clear to her that Osric must surely have understood the puzzle to get this far.
"So, have you worked out how much time remains?" she asked.
"Presumably, until the first crescent moon," he replied "although I have yet to work out what will happen if the night is cloudy." Blanche laughed.
"Even when She is hidden, She is still there."
"I thought as much, but I wasn't sure."
"Well then, let us proceed." She led the way to the pool. To Osric, the stars seemed preternaturally bright. "I bring to you the second key. Behold, I show you a mystery" Osric, having guessed but not been sure, turned to see Blanche naked, cloaked in the starry sky. He took off his jerkin, folded it and placed it on the ground. Reverently he picked up the blue robe, folded it and placed it neatly on the jerkin. Then, without shame, he removed his kilt and went to stand next to her. Elegantly, once more, she sat.
"Come with me" she said, and he, too, sat, and the stillness took him.
Much later, they sat in Osric's cell, a tiny candle giving enough light to share a bowl of wine. She watched him carefully.
"You didn't seem surprised yet you made no attempt to touch me"
"I'm not sure how precise the definition of 'pure' is in Breton" he admitted "just as I'm not sure whether I'll ruin everything if I guess at the third key."
"You have already thought about it - what difference can speaking it aloud make?"
"I can say it, but I can't see it. A cup, cloaked in stars, to hold the moon." She smiled gently.
"Then," she said "you already know the meaning of 'pure'." She reached out and hugged him to her. Relief flooded through him, followed unasked by arousal as he felt her breast against his cheek. She released him and stood to leave, then added "And before you ask, yes, I have reason to believe that the experience is the same for a man as for a woman."
The night after the new moon was bright, crisp and clear. Osric, who had fretted all the previous night, now found his mind clear. The chapel would, of course, be empty by the time the fist crescent moon rose. He was honest enough to admit to himself that he was afraid, but this was simply fear of the unknown: all else felt right. He bathed, and then donned the brown robe with a tie at the neck. In bare feet, the hem caught the slightly damp grass.
The little chapel felt almost too serene. The wall paintings glistened in the glow of several rush-lights placed in iron stands at intervals just outside a circle marked the flagged floor, surrounding the central pillar. From the pillar, fan vaulting radiated out, giving the odd impression of a sphere of light. As Osric entered he faintly registered the door being barred behind him. Then he was lost in the simple beauty of the moment. In precise and measured Latin, Blanche began to intone the words he had written. She looked to him like a statue of some Roman goddess. Then he finally accepted that she was precisely that, and gave himself over to the ceremony.
The words formed in his mind as if they were still written on his parchment, with red colouring on the capital letters:
"She is the Lady Wisdom, created before all things, the consort of the all-father, his delight..."
And then all of it was true. And a little later still, none of it mattered.
For the next three weeks, Osric agonised alone. He was totally fulfilled, save only that Blanche had left on the morning after the service of the first crescent. He knew that she had gone to find the silversmith, and to find another maiden. He swept the cells and arranged the bedding. He expected that they would arrive at the full moon. They did not.
He became more and more uncomfortable. The cells were spotless. What if everything that had seemed so right was in fact some mammoth joke at his expense? Then, at last, three days before the new moon, they arrived. He recognised the girl, or more properly her long blonde hair, for Maxen's court was not large, but had to be introduced - Syris.
With impeccable timing, that first night was clear: Osric had not seen the moon for several days. Naked, they shared wine and sought the silence together. It was a personable evening and Osric could see that Syris had had an easier time of it than he himself had. Some sense of duty told him this was "right", but he pushed it aside with the thought that it was just the way things were.
Three nights remained and they were spent in meditation and easy companionship. If Syris felt the same apprehension that Osric had, she didn't show it. Even Blanche had to admit to herself that this time it was as right as it had ever been. Once for the Lady, and once for Love. She'd seen it written often enough, but never really experienced it. Now she had sympathy for Maxen, standing at the edge of something she would never know fully. She threw herself into the preparations in the chapel. Then finally, it was time.
It had always been thus in the times of the folk-tales, but seldom since mankind invented persecution. The priestess took both of her beloved pupils and choreographed the great dance, bringing them together in time with Osric's beautiful Latin. She held the cup for each of them to drink in turn, then Osric, wonderfully, held it for her, and kissed her. For the first time for any years, "like a brim full barrel", she was stirred up. She willed all the power and love back to the priest and his new priestess, kissed them both and then walked beyond the circle of light.
Now they held the cup for each other. Blanche slipped un-heard and un-noticed through the door. She allowed herself one backward glance at the new crescent moon hanging above the little chapel. The cup was in safe hands. Then she turned towards her own future. In the far distance was a hill on the skyline, its tell-tale chapel, like a nipple, silhouetted against the bright, starry sky. Knowing well enough where her road led now, although not, perhaps, what awaited her there, she walked out into the cloak of stars.
copyright ©2000 Pithukuf